November and December are prime times to bird Lake Havasu with waterfowl migration under way. With all three species of scoters as well as a Red-throated Loon and the now regular large numbers of Greater Scaup and smaller number of Barrow’s Goldeneyes having arrived for the winter it’s a great time to be out and looking! One of the main questions we are asked is how do you find these birds? Given that the majorities of birders in Arizona live away from large reservoirs and are not used to identifying birds at such a distance this is a very understandable question. Below I will try to offer some tips and guidance for looking for birds on the lake.
First and foremost, be aware that compared to sewage treatment plants and places like Willcox, Lake Havasu is huge; you are often trying to identify birds that are a mile away or more. To give everyone some perspectives here are some distances starting with the Bill Williams arm. From the NWR HQ the nearest reed island is ~.45 miles away while the distant end of the buoy line is roughly .7 miles away. To put this in perspective Lake Cochise at its longest point is only .4 miles long! Scanning the main body of Lake Havasu the birds are often more distant. Scanning from the red and white lighthouse on Pittsburgh Pt. the ferry boat that crosses the lake, at its closest point is ~1.35 miles away! At the north end the lake is still about a mile across. Added to this even in winter heat haze can be a problem, making seeing a bird a mile away difficult, let alone identifying one. Generally when the sun is most intense it is best to skip the main body of the lake.
Now for some tips, number one of which is to bring a good scope. As I mentioned the distances are great and having a good scope certainly helps. If you don’t have a great scope, that’s ok, but you should be prepared to let some birds go as being simply too far away to identify as well as knowing you might miss something. You can also help with some of the distances by checking multiple locations, as some may be closer to an interesting bird than others. For example, in the Bill Williams arm it is often helpful to walk the CAP peninsula to get closer to some of the distant flocks of diving ducks.
Second and equally important is patience. There can be a lot of birds around and it can take time to go through them all. The birds often move around a lot, feeding flocks will form, boats will flush birds, or they may just decide another spot is better. Waiting around will give you the chance to spot something that has finally moved out from its hidden cove. It is easy to spend a couple hours on a good day scanning from one spot. This also can help with changing your perspective on the size of birds. If you are used to seeing birds up close it takes a while to relearn field marks that are useful on distant birds. Because of the distance involved, it isn’t uncommon to think you have come across a rare grebe because it looks huge compared to the Common Loon behind it, only to realize it is a Pied-billed Grebe that is a quarter or even a half mile closer than the loon!
Be sure and study up ahead of time knowing what field marks are useful at a distance to help you spot the birds. Things like knowing that Red-throated Loons are about the same length as a Western/Clark’s Grebe, while a Pacific Loon is slightly bigger is the type of knowledge useful for trying to figure out what that distant loon is. Finally knowing what birds are expected and where can be helpful. There is now an invasive mussel in Lake Havasu and it is particularly common in the Bill Williams Arm. Because of this, species like Barrow’s Goldeneye and scoters are most likely there. Does this mean that you shouldn’t look for them elsewhere? Of course not, scoters can be found below Parker Dam or on the main body of Lake Havasu. However for time spent scanning, I have seen far more scoters in the Bill Williams Arm than all other areas of Lake Havasu combined. A final note on scaup, because of the mussel Greater Scaup have increased astronomically in certain areas. They are now the expected species in the Bill Williams Arm and around Pittsburgh Pt and it can often be difficult to find a Lesser Scaup at these locations when they are not actively migrating. Lesser is still the more common species around Parker Dam and in the shallow weedy waters of the north end of Lake Havasu.
I hope these couple of tips will help out on your next visit to Lake Havasu!
-David Vander Pluym
Now I'd be interested in hearing what kind of specific information and tips would be most helpful to visitors and readers. Share your problems, experiences, questions, etc. in the comments!